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The Belton Conversation Piece

Philippe Mercier (Berlin 1689 – London 1760)

Category

Art / Oil paintings

Date

circa 1725 - circa 1726

Materials

Oil on canvas

Measurements

648 x 756 mm (25 1/2 x 29 3/4 in)

Place of origin

England

Order this image

Collection

Belton House, Lincolnshire (Accredited Museum)

On show at

Belton House, Lincolnshire, Midlands, National Trust

NT 436045

Caption

Conversation-pieces are small-scale group portraits, in which the sitters are linked by some activity. They were effectively introduced to Britain by Mercier, a German-born French Huguenot follower of Watteau, and this is one of the two earliest examples by him. Belton is the setting, and its owner, Viscount Tyrconnel, stands next to the artist on the left. His brother William looks out from the right, beside one cousin, Savile Cust, pulling the rope of a swing for another cousin, Elizabeth Dayrell. Her husband, Francis, stands beside the invalid Viscountess Tyrconnel in her chariot.

Summary

Oil painting on canvas, The Belton Conversation Piece by Philippe Mercier (Berlin 1689 – London 1760), signed: Ph. Mercier Pinxit, circa 1725-26. Eight full-length portraits of figures in the park at Belton with south front of Belton House in the left background. The figures are, left to right: Philippe Mercier seated on the ground facing right, his right leg outstretched, a sketchpad on his lap, a drawing implement in his right hand. Above him stands Sir John Brownlow, Viscount Tyrconnel, a cane in his left hand, dressed in a fawn velvet suit, wearing the sash of the Order of the Bath and its insignia. Mrs Frances Dayrell, Lady Tyrconnel's cousin is seated in a swing wearing a pale green satin closed gown with a muslin apron and a muslin kerchief with pink bows on the bodice and a white muslin cap also with pink bows; A black page wearing a turban stands behind her dressed in a dark brown suit with gold buttons and gold edging to his coat, brown breeches and brown stockings. The invalid Lady Tyrconnel is seated in a wheeled chair set on a green platform with red wheels, a dog on her lap. She is dressed in a closed gown comprising a brown satin bodice and skirt both decorated with gold military style frogging. She also wears an ornament (jewelled?) of flowers in her hair. Francis Dayrell stands next to her, his left hand in his pocket, his right hand tucked into his open grey coat which is buttoned at the waist; Savile Cockayne Cust pulls a rope attached to the swing and wears a pink coat buttoned to the neck trimmed with silver edging. William Brownlow, Lord Tyrconnel's brother, leaned against a tree trunk, his left leg crossed over his right, wearing a pale brown coat, unbuttoned, with deep pink cuffs and a matching pink waistcoat. He also wears pink stockings. With the exception of the black page, all the men wear shoulder-length powdered wigs parted in the centre.

Full description

If any picture can be said to epitomise the agréments of country-house life in England in the eighteenth century, it is this. It is Mercier's masterpiece, the picture in which he successfully fused his practice of the Watteauesque fête galante with the traditions of the Netherlandish family portrait, to create the English conversation-piece; so it is appropriate that he should have included an apparently idealised portrait of himself sketching the scene in the bottom left-hand corner. The picture was painted in 1725/26, some ten years after his arrival in England, but is one of the earliest of his paintings to survive and be identified. The dramatis personae were identified a century or so later , although the order in which they were described then and subsequently differs in certain respects from the one suggested here. On the left is the commissioner of the picture and the owner of Belton, where it is set: Sir John Brownlow, Viscount Tyrconnel (1690-1754), eldest son of Sir William Brownlow and Dorothy Mason, wearing the ribbon and star of the newly-revived Order of the Bath, of which he was one of the first new knights - though, to his chagrin, as the holder of an Irish peerage, given the ribbon the day after the rest, on May 28th. His first wife, his cousin Eleanor Brownlow (1691-1730), eldest daughter of 'Young' Sir John Brownlow and Alice Sherard, sits in a 'chariot' pushed by her blackamoor page: no doubt because she was already suffering from the illness that would carry her off five years later, to alleviate which her husband was to take her out of London to the purer air of Greenwich in 1729. Mercier made one of his loveliest drawings, aux trois crayons, of her down to the waist, in the very same coroneted chariot, as a preparation for this picture . Seated in the swing - a little surprisingly, perhaps, the effective focus of the picture - is Elizabeth Whitcombe, Mrs Francis Dayrell (1700/01-1768), daughter of Peter Whitcombe and Mary Sherard, and thus first cousin to Viscountess Tyrconnel. Looking at her, and standing behind Lady Tyrconnel, is her husband, Francis Dayrell (d.1760) from the branch of the Dayrells whose seat was Shudy Camps, Cambridgeshire. Holding the rope of the swing is Savile Cockayne Cust (1698-1772), later of Cockayne Hatley, a remoter cousin, but by the marriage of Sir Richard Cust, 2nd Bt, of Pinchbeck, with Lord Tyrconnel's only sister Anne, through which Belton was subsequently to pass from the Brownlows to the Custs, who then took Brownlow as their title, when raised to the peerage. Though known as 'Cavil Cust', on account of his litigious nature, he was a constant and welcome guest both at Belton and Grantham - hence his inclusion in Enoch Seeman's Cust Family Piece (Belton) as well. Finally, looking out at the right, already a little detached from the scene, as if in premonition of his premature demise, William Brownlow, Lord Tyrconnel's only brother (1699-1726). He was something of a sportsman, and no doubt enjoyed Belton for that reason. But he had also come badly out of speculation in the 'South Sea Bubble', and was to leave only £607 net, when he died on 28 July 1726: the date that must set the terminus ante quem for the picture's completion, since there is nothing in it or in the portrayal of him actually premonitory of death. Indeed, the two brothers act as the repoussoirs of the picture - William catching the eye of the spectator with his own - focusing attention on the carefree scene at its centre. Lord Tyrconnel's early patronage of Mercier was to be particularly significant, because the peer was to become a member of the circle of Frederick, Prince of Wales after the latter's arrival in England in December 1728. Mercier was appointed Principal Painter to the Prince in February of the next year, and almost immediately started on a whole-length state portrait of him; ultimately going on to paint a series of much less formal images of him. It is true that Mercier had apparently painted the Prince in Hanover back in 1716, but this would have been highly unlikely of itself to have given him the entrée to Frederick, so that it would seem that either or both Tyrconnel and/or the Schutz brothers were responsible for the reintroduction . In 1730 Mercier went on to paint an engraved portrait of Frederick, Prince of Wales that the sitter later gave to Tyrconnel . Tyrconnel also obtained a further picture from Mercier, a 'Prospect of Belton' that was recorded in his house in Arlington Street in 1738 . If, as seems likely, this is the picture that now hangs in the Breakfast Room at Belton, then Mercier - who never seems to have painted pure landscapes - probably restricted his role to the insertion of the figures. Tyrconnel's collecting and patronage of artists was not restricted to Mercier. He was, in fact, the first of the three collectors whose acquisitions made the collections at Belton (and later, Ashridge) amongst the finest in the country (the other two being Sir Henry Bankes and - above all -Sir Abraham Hume). Sadly, after successive sales, both of individual pictures, and of whole slices of the collection - notably at Christie's in 1923 and 1929 - only a shadow of these former glories remains . Tyrconnel's taste does not seem to have been particularly enterprising, but is probably very representative of what it was possible to acquire from "Picture Marchants in London" (one whose name we know being a Count Viani): a miscellaneous mixture of Dutch, Flemish, and Italian flower-pictures, views, and religious subjects, etc. (two of the best to survive being Chiari's ricordi of his two early altarpieces in S. Maria del Suffragio in Rome). In a way that was characteristic of the time, however, the Old Masters formed the bulk of the 152 pictures that are recorded as having hung in his London house in 1738, whereas the 196 pictures recorded at Belton in 1737 chiefly comprised - largely inherited - family portraits. Curiously, however, the present picture, neither appears in either of these lists, nor in the posthumous inventory of the house in Arlington Street - which was still virtually devoid of family portraits - that is all we have for 1754. (i) The young artist bears little resemblance to Mercier as shown in Faber's mezzotint of his lost Self-Portrait at an easel (exh. cat. Philip Mercier, City Art Gallery, York & Kenwood, 1969, frontispiece), but that dates from a decade later. There is more resemblance to his image in the lost Mercier Family Portrait that he himself etched (ibid., cat. no.3); but, though evidently done a year or two before the present painting, the artist looks more youthful in the latter). (ii) By a note tucked into the Hon. Elizabeth Cust's Ms. Catalogue of the Pictures at Belton (see Note 5). (iii) Sotheby's Monaco, 2 December 1989, lot 172; exh. Dessins anciens, Haboldt & Co., Paris, 1990-91, no.21. (iv) Cf. exh. cat. Philippe Mercier, pp.11 & 25-26; John Ingamells & Robert Raines, 'A Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings and Etchings of Philip Mercier', The Walpole Society, vol. XLVI, 1976-78 [1978], pp.3-4; and Kimerly Rorschach, 'Frederick, Prince of Wales as Collector and Patron', The Walpole Society, vol. LV, 1989-90 [1993], pp.5-6. (v) ?The Hon. Elizabeth Cust, Ms. Catalogue of the pictures at Belton, c.1805, no.220 (ascribed to Liotard); Lady Elizabeth Cust, Records of the Cust Family.:Series II:The Brownlows of Belton. 1550-1779, 1909, p.208; Kimerly Rorschach, art.cit., p.53,no.36. (vi) MS in the Belton Archives, Lincolnshire Record Office. In view of the absence otherwise of the present painting from any of the laists of Lord Tyrconnel's paictures, it is just possible that it was menat by this rather elliptical designation (adapted from author's version/pre-publication, Alastair Laing, In Trust for the Nation, exh. cat., 1995)

Provenance

Presumably commissioned by Viscount Tyronnel, but not apparently recorded either at Belton in 1737 or in his house in Arlington Street in 1738, nor in posthumous inventory at the latter on 2 April in 1754; Frances Bankes. Lady Brownlow (1756 - 1847), Hill St; given by her to John, 2nd Baron and 1st Earl Brownlow some time after the death of her husband, the 1st Baron, in 1807 (recorded in Cust catalogue); thence by descent; acquired by the National Trust from 7th Lord Brownlow in 1984 at the same time as he gave Belton, its garden and many of its contents with aid from the National Heritage Memorial Fund

Credit line

Belton House, The Brownlow Collection (acquired with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund by the National Trust in 1984)

Makers and roles

Philippe Mercier (Berlin 1689 – London 1760), artist

Exhibition history

In Trust for the Nation, National Gallery, London, 1995 - 1996, no.17 The Treasure Houses of Britain, National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA, 1985 - 1986, no.166

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